Welcome to the new reality for at least the next several years, Penn State football fans.
About a month after the Nittany Lions were rolled at home by Indiana, three weeks after that magical overtime victory over Michigan, and one week after getting embarrassed by Ohio State, PSU needed an extra period to defeat an Illinois side that entered Saturday losers of three straight. The ramifications of the NCAA sanctions become more and more visible with every game Penn State plays, and it's clear what this program is going to be for a good amount of time.
They're not awful. They're not great. They are the 2013 Nittany Lions.
Penn State beats Illinois: The big story...
was all of the avoidable mistakes made by Penn State. An unnecessary roughing the passer shove on what should have been the final play of the first half gifted Illinois with another play, three points and momentum that propelled the visitors to a second half rally. Running back Bill Belton tried to be a hero and stretch the ball over the goal line rather than protect it late in the fourth quarter, a decision that resulted in a fumble that nearly cost PSU the game.
Eleven penalties at home against a conference opponent is inexcusable. It's certainly not Penn State football. Similar performances down the road against the likes of Nebraska and Wisconsin would mean bad times for head coach Bill O'Brien and his team.
Penn State beats Illinois: Two-headed monster
Ignore the stats, which were not at all bad, put up by true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. What's most impressive is that he looks more like the real deal with every weekend. The ability to immediately put mistakes in the past is one that some pros, let alone an 18-year old, lack, and Hackenberg's poise and confidence in the pocket is what you would expect to see from a future first-round pick.
Wide receiver Allen Robinson continues to add to his NFL resume. The junior standout reeled in 11 passes for 165 yards in the winning effort, and he matched his heroics against Michigan with a similar leaping grab late in the contest. Numbers aside, Robinson is the most gifted Penn State WR I've seen in my three decades of watching college football.
It's far from an overstatement to suggest that Robinson does it all. He runs great routes. He has the hands of a NFL wide receiver. No defender is out-jumping him for any ball. He utilizes his strength to fight for and win 50-50 passes.
That young man is going to make a nice living playing football on Sundays, and soon.
Penn State beats Illinois: Phew
Plenty will be made about the fight and heart Penn State showed in not suffering a complete collapse after Illinois took the lead in the fourth quarter, and deservedly so. I, more so, want to focus on what the Nittany Lions avoided on Saturday. Had Sam Ficken failed to convert his field goal attempt with under a minute left in regulation or had Illinois won overtime, PSU wouldn't have just been at .500 overall.
The Nittany Lions would have been 1-3 in Big Ten play and emotionally battered after two very different kinds of disheartening defeats.
While guilty of no wrong themselves, these players are tasked with keeping the PSU program afloat through the current disciplinary period. That includes earning wins on national TV and having a winning record against conference opponents. How Penn State bounced back from the trouncing at the hands of OSU says a lot about the leaders this program is privileged to have at the moment.